Safe Start in the Community: Denver, Colo.

FB general coverThroughout the month we will feature the 10 Safe Start Promising Approaches grantees and the work they’re doing in their communities to help children exposed to violence and their families.

Louisa was born into a family wrought with drug addiction, sexual abuse and criminal involvement. She lived with her mother, but when her mother was in jail or using drugs, Louisa stayed with whichever family member she could. At age 3, Louisa’s grandfather abused her sexually; at age 14, her sister gave her to an older man in exchange for a place to stay. Louisa had one child with this man and suffered years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. At 18, Louisa left the man but soon found herself in another abusive relationship. She used drugs, had two more children, and began helping her boyfriend sell drugs. Her children witnessed the physical and drug abuse and sometimes had to stay with other family members when Louisa was not around. Louisa found herself repeating the life her mother had lived.

Louisa was caught smuggling drugs for her boyfriend. After serving a few months in jail, and with the threat of facing another 6 years of incarceration, she came to Denver Adult Probation Department to serve a 2-year probation sentence. At the start of her sentence, Louisa asks for help to maintain sobriety and help for her children because of the violence they have seen.

Louisa and her family enroll in the Denver Safe Start Promising Approaches research study. They attend all 10 sessions of the Strengthening Families Coping Resources program, and Louisa meets weekly with her law enforcement advocate (LEA) for additional support. Sometimes her LEA takes the family to dinner or the park. Louisa implements a weekly family night and a chore system and 3 months later is maintaining both routines. Her kids attend school regularly, and Louisa returns to school for her GED. Louisa is still sober after almost 6 months and engages in weekly therapy to help understand her own trauma and how to heal her wounds.

Louisa is breaking her cycle of violence and providing her children with the possibility of a drug-free, violence-free life.

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Safe Start in the Community: Aurora, Colo.

FB general coverThroughout the month we will feature the 10 Safe Start Promising Approaches grantees and the work they’re doing in their communities to help children exposed to violence and their families.

Tommy is an 8-year-old boy who is struggling in school after witnessing domestic violence. He often saw his mother, Gail, being hit and thrown to the ground by her boyfriend. At school, Tommy began having difficulty concentrating, getting into fights at recess, and refusing to do his homework. At home, Tommy talked back to his mom, spent time away from the family, and did not want to talk to anyone about what had happened.

Tommy had been seeing a school-based therapist. After Tommy started showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as being distracted and jumpy and not listening, the therapist referred him to the Aurora Safe Start program. Tommy’s teacher knew about the program after attending training by the Safe Start project manager. The training addressed the effects of exposure to violence and trauma on children’s educational achievement.

At the Aurora Safe Start program, Tommy receives Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He learns and practices coping skills and things to do at school and home to help him when he feels scared or angry. He learns how to relax his body with his breathing and using positive thoughts. Eventually, Tommy writes a story about the night when his mom was hurt by her boyfriend.

Gail learns how she can support Tommy and talks with him about his feelings, especially his feelings when he saw her being hit. At the end of treatment, Tommy feels more comfortable at home and school. His behavior is not perfect, but he is not getting in trouble at school and goes to his mom when he needs help with his feelings.

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Violence Exposure: The importance of evidence-based interventions

From Elena Cohen, project director of the Safe Start Center. For decades she has worked on the issue of children’s exposure to violence.

Most of us want to be smart shoppers. For example, before purchasing a car, we read consumer guides to learn what cars are most reliable, which get the best gas mileage and which are the best buy for our money.  When given the choice between selecting a medical treatment that has been recommended – but not back by scientific evidence – or one that has been proven by clinical research to be effective, most of us will choose the one backed by scientific evidence.

Importantly, the federal government, associations such as the American Psychological Association, American Pediatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers, as well as private funding groups are increasing their demands to base social policy and other decisions and programs on sound evidence as to their effectiveness. Using an evidence-based approach to social policy has a number of advantages because it has the potential to decrease the tendency to run programs which are socially acceptable (e.g. drug education in schools) but which often prove to be ineffective when evaluated.

When it comes to children and youth who are exposed to violence, most are never formally identified, assessed, and/or treated. Yet the emotional, social, and psychological impact of their exposure is observed by families and practitioners in many settings. Research has demonstrated that exposure to violence is associated with increased use of health and mental health services and increased risk of involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

For many children who have been exposed to violence, a change in the environment may not be enough.   Some may require specialized interventions that are delivered in their homes and communities.  Such interventions, when they are effective, can improve outcomes for children well into their adult years and can generate benefits to society that far exceed program costs.

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